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The omicron variant spreads across Europe as new travel bans take effect

Updated November 27, 2021 at 12:22 PM ET

The omicron strain of the coronavirus is cropping up across Europe, with cases detected in two people in the United Kingdom, two in Germany and at least one in Italy, as the latest variant of concern spreads around the world.

A number of countries, including the U.S., have initiated travel bans against South Africa — where the rapidly circulating new strain was first identified on Nov. 24 — as well as seven other southern African nations. Extra testing and self-isolation measures for travelers from those countries are also in place.

The two people arrived at Munich airport in Germany on Wednesday, according to a statement by the Bavarian Ministry of Health and Care. It says another 50 people who arrived from Cape Town on Friday are in quarantine.

At least two people in the United Kingdom have the omicron variant, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said Saturday. The individuals are isolating at home.

One case was also identified by health authorities in Italy, according to Corriere della Sera, a leading daily newspaper.

Cases have also been reported in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel during a relatively short period of time.

In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention so far has not identified any cases of the fast-spreading strain.

President Biden has been briefed on the latest on the omicron variant, a White House official said Saturday.

"At the same time, senior health officials and the COVID response team have been monitoring the latest updates on omicron and in regular touch with health officials around the world," the official said.

Stricter travel restriction and testing guidance announced

The concern over the quick spread of the variant has led to restrictions on travel from several countries in southern Africa. The Biden administration announced restricted travel for non-U.S. citizens starting Monday from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. The State Department also issued "do not travel" advisories for U.S. citizens.

The European Union also announced plans to halt travel from South Africa and other southern African nations.

In the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced additional requirements for travelers in a press conference Saturday.

Any travelers entering the country will be required to take a PCR test by the end of the second day after arrival, and be required to self-isolate until they receive a negative result, Johnson said.

"We need to take targeted and proportionate measures now as a precaution as we find out more," Johnson said. In part, he added, the efforts are a way to buy scientists more time as they try to learn more about the variant.

Johnson also thanked the scientists in South Africa who identified and shared information on the new variant "widely and immediately."

Additional measures Johnson announced Saturday include once again requiring face coverings in shops and public transportation, and requiring all contacts of anyone who tests positive for the omicron variant to isolate for 10 days regardless of vaccination status.

The mutations of the omicron variant are concerning, WHO says

The omicron variant is the first new variant of concern since the delta variant that swept through the world earlier this summer, causing an uptick in infections and deaths, particularly among the unvaccinated population. The delta strain was twiceas infectious as the original COVID-19 virus.

While there are a number of studies underway to continue evaluating the omicron variant, the World Health Organization says the number of mutations in this variant is "concerning" and that it could suggest an "increased risk of reinfection."

The WHO also says that current COVID-19 tests are capable of identifying this omicron variant, which is how authorities have been able to track how rapidly the variant is spreading. But further information and studies on the variant could take "days to weeks," health officials from WHO said.

Exactly how fast the variant is spreading and whether the current vaccines available can prevent infection are still unclear. But Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told NPR: "Let me be clear, there is no data at the present time to indicate that the current vaccines would not work."

In the meantime, people should continue to take steps to lower their exposure to infection and reduce the spread of the virus, the WHO urges. This includes mask-wearing and getting the vaccine when it's your turn to do so.

Collins also recommends that people who are six months out from being fully vaccinated get their booster shot.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.
Nicole Hernandez